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Polestar unveils its all-electric response to the Tesla Model 3

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Volvo’s standalone electric performance brand Polestar introduced Wednesday its first all-electric vehicle — a five-door fastback that is gunning for the Tesla Model 3.

In the past few years, every time an electric vehicle — concept, prototype or production version — has been unveiled, the term “Tesla killer” has been tossed about regardless of whether that car will ever even come to market.

In the case of Polestar 2, it’s unclear if it will be the “Tesla killer.” It’s possible that an entirely new group of customers will be attracted to the vehicle. What is clear: The Polestar 2 was designed to compete with the Tesla Model 3 in the U.S., Europe and China. 

You can watch the reveal on Polestar’s YouTube channel.

The specs

The Polestar 2 is meant to be a performance electric vehicle. It’s equipped with two electric motors and a 78 kilowatt-hour battery pack that has an estimated EPA range of about 275 miles.

The Polestar 2’s all-wheel drive electric powertrain produces 300 kW (an equivalent of 408 horsepower) and 487 lb-ft of torque. This is above the rear-wheel (and currently cheapest) version of the Model 3. It’s just a skosh under the dual-motor performance version of the Model 3, which has an output of 450 horsepower and 471 lb-ft of torque.

The Polestar 2 accelerates from 0 to 100km (about 62 mph) in less than five seconds — again, a stat that puts it right above the mid-range Model 3 and below the performance version.

Android inside

In 2017, Volvo announced plans to incorporate a version of its Android operating system into its car infotainment systems. A year later, the company said it would embed voice-controlled Google Assistant, Google Play Store, Google Maps and other Google services into its next-generation Sensus infotainment system.

Polestar has followed Volvo. The Polestar 2’s infotainment system will be powered by Android OS and, as a result, bring into the car embedded Google services such as Google Assistant, Google Maps and the Google Play Store.

This shouldn’t be confused with Android Auto, which is a secondary interface that lies on top of an operating system. Android OS is modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. But instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so it could be used in cars.

The Polestar 2 will also have so-called “Phone-As-Key technology,” which basically means customers will have the ability to unlock their car remotely using their smartphones. This capability opens the door — literally and figuratively — for owners to rent their vehicle out via car sharing or use a delivery service to drop off items in the vehicle.

The feature also allows Polestar 2 to sense the driver upon approach. 

Polestar 2-Interior

Market plans

The base price of Polestar 2 is €39,900 ($45,389), the company says. However, for the first year of production the pricier “launch edition” will only be available at €59,900, or about $68,000. (The prices are listed before any federal or state incentives might be applied.)

The launch edition is essentially a base car with two packages, its advanced driver assistance system called Pilot Assist and Plus Pack.

Production of the Polestar 2 will begin in early 2020 at its Chengdu, China factory. The company is initially targeting sales in China, the U.S., Canada and a handful of European countries that include Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the U.K.

Polestar, like its potential rival Tesla, is also ditching the dealership. Polestar will only sell its vehicles online and will offer customers subscriptions to the vehicle. Subscription pricing will be revealed at a later date, Polestar said.

The automaker is also opening “Polestar Spaces,” a showroom where customers can interact with the product and schedule test drives. These spaces will be standalone facilities and not within existing Volvo retailer showrooms. Polestar is planning to have 60 of these spaces open by 2020, including Oslo, Los Angeles and Shanghai.

Polestar was once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars. In 2017, the company was recast as an electric performance brand aimed at producing exciting and fun-to-drive electric vehicles — a niche that Tesla was the first to fill and has dominated ever since. Polestar is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China. Volvo was acquired by Geely in 2010.

The company’s first vehicle, the Polestar 1, was unveiled in September. The Polestar 1 is not a pure electric vehicle; it’s a plug-in hybrid with two electrical motors powered by three 34 kilowatt-hour battery packs and a turbo and supercharged gas inline 4 up front.

Polestar said Wednesday that its next vehicle, the Polestar 3, will be an all-electric “performance SUV.” The company didn’t provide any additional details about the Polestar 3.

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Until further notice, think twice before using Google to download software

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Searching Google for downloads of popular software has always come with risks, but over the past few months, it has been downright dangerous, according to researchers and a pseudorandom collection of queries.

“Threat researchers are used to seeing a moderate flow of malvertising via Google Ads,” volunteers at Spamhaus wrote on Thursday. “However, over the past few days, researchers have witnessed a massive spike affecting numerous famous brands, with multiple malware being utilized. This is not ‘the norm.’”

One of many new threats: MalVirt

The surge is coming from numerous malware families, including AuroraStealer, IcedID, Meta Stealer, RedLine Stealer, Vidar, Formbook, and XLoader. In the past, these families typically relied on phishing and malicious spam that attached Microsoft Word documents with booby-trapped macros. Over the past month, Google Ads has become the go-to place for criminals to spread their malicious wares that are disguised as legitimate downloads by impersonating brands such as Adobe Reader, Gimp, Microsoft Teams, OBS, Slack, Tor, and Thunderbird.

On the same day that Spamhaus published its report, researchers from security firm Sentinel One documented an advanced Google malvertising campaign pushing multiple malicious loaders implemented in .NET. Sentinel One has dubbed these loaders MalVirt. At the moment, the MalVirt loaders are being used to distribute malware most commonly known as XLoader, available for both Windows and macOS. XLoader is a successor to malware also known as Formbook. Threat actors use XLoader to steal contacts data and other sensitive data from infected devices.

The MalVirt loaders use obfuscated virtualization to evade end-point protection and analysis. To disguise real C2 traffic and evade network detections, MalVirt beacons to decoy command and control servers hosted at providers including Azure, Tucows, Choopa, and Namecheap. Sentinel One researcher Tom Hegel wrote:

As a response to Microsoft blocking Office macros by default in documents from the Internet, threat actors have turned to alternative malware distribution methods—most recently, malvertising. The MalVirt loaders we observed demonstrate just how much effort threat actors are investing in evading detection and thwarting analysis.

Malware of the Formbook family is a highly capable infostealer that is deployed through the application of a significant amount of anti-analysis and anti-detection techniques by the MalVirt loaders. Traditionally distributed as an attachment to phishing emails, we assess that threat actors distributing this malware are likely joining the malvertising trend.

Given the massive size of the audience threat actors can reach through malvertising, we expect malware to continue being distributed using this method.

Google representatives declined an interview. Instead, they provided the following statement:

Bad actors often employ sophisticated measures to conceal their identities and evade our policies and enforcement. To combat this over the past few years, we’ve launched new certification policies, ramped up advertiser verification, and increased our capacity to detect and prevent coordinated scams. We are aware of the recent uptick in fraudulent ad activity. Addressing it is a critical priority and we are working to resolve these incidents as quickly as possible.

Anecdotal evidence that Google malvertising is out of control isn’t hard to come by. Searches seeking software downloads are probably the most likely to turn up malvertising. Take, for instance, the results Google returned for a search Thursday looking for “visual studio download”:

Clicking that Google-sponsored link redirected me to downloadstudio[.]net, which is flagged by VirusTotal as malicious by only a single endpoint provider:

On Thursday evening, the download this site offered was detected as malicious by 43 antimalware engines:

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ChatGPT sets record for fastest-growing user base in history, report says

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Enlarge / A realistic artist’s depiction of an encounter with ChatGPT Plus.

Benj Edwards / Ars Technica / OpenAI

On Wednesday, Reuters reported that AI bot ChatGPT reached an estimated 100 million active monthly users last month, a mere two months from launch, making it the “fastest-growing consumer application in history,” according to a UBS investment bank research note. In comparison, TikTok took nine months to reach 100 million monthly users, and Instagram about 2.5 years, according to UBS researcher Lloyd Walmsley.

“In 20 years following the Internet space, we cannot recall a faster ramp in a consumer internet app,” Reuters quotes Walmsley as writing in the UBS note.

Reuters says the UBS data comes from analytics firm Similar Web, which states that around 13 million unique visitors used ChatGPT every day in January, doubling the number of users in December.

ChatGPT is a conversational large language model (LLM) that can discuss almost any topic at an almost human level. It reads context and answers questions easily, though sometimes not accurately (improving its accuracy is a work in progress). After launching as a free public beta on November 30, the GPT-3 powered AI bot has inspired awe, wonder, and fear in education, computer security, and finance. It’s shaken up the tech industry, prompting a $10 billion investment from Microsoft and causing Google to see its life flash before its eyes.

Also on Wednesday, OpenAI announced ChatGPT Plus, a $20 per month subscription service that will offer users faster response times, preferential access to ChatGPT during peak times, and priority access to new features. It’s an attempt to keep up with the intense demand for ChatGPT that has often seen the site deny users due to overwhelming activity.

Over the past few decades, researchers have noticed that technology adoption rates are quickening, with inventions such as the telephone, television, and the Internet taking shorter periods of time to reach massive numbers of users. Will generative AI tools be next on that list? With the kind of trajectory shown by ChatGPT, it’s entirely possible.

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Netflix stirs fears by using AI-assisted background art in short anime film

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Enlarge / A still image from the short film Dog and Boy,, which uses image synthesis to help generate background artwork.

Netflix

Over the past year, generative AI has kicked off a wave of existential dread over potential machine-fueled job loss not seen since the advent of the industrial revolution. On Tuesday, Netflix reinvigorated that fear when it debuted a short film called Dog and Boy that utilizes AI image synthesis to help generate its background artwork.

Directed by Ryotaro Makihara, the three-minute animated short follows the story of a boy and his robotic dog through cheerful times, although the story soon takes a dramatic turn toward the post-apocalyptic. Along the way, it includes lush backgrounds apparently created as a collaboration between man and machine, credited to “AI (+Human)” in the end credit sequence.

In the announcement tweet, Netflix cited an industry labor shortage as the reason for using the image synthesis technology:

As an experimental effort to help the anime industry, which has a labor shortage, we used image generation technology for the background images of all three-minute video cuts!

Netflix and the production company WIT Studio tapped Japanese AI firm Rinna for assistance with generating the images. They did not announce exactly what type of technology Rinna used to generate the artwork, but the process looks similar to a Stable Diffusion-powered “img2img” process than can take an image and transform it based on a written prompt.

The film is currently available to view for free on YouTube.

Netflix’s official Dog and Boy promotional video.

Almost immediately, Twitter users responded with a torrent of negative replies to Netflix’s tweet announcing the film, such as, “I know a ton of animators looking for work if you guys are struggling to find them (are you looking very hard?).” Several others quoted legendary Studio Ghibli animator Hayao Miyazaki as saying that AI-powered art “is an insult to life itself.”

In a news release, Netflix expressed its hopes that the new technology would assist with future animation productions (translated by Google Translate): “As a studio, Netflix focuses on supporting creators in the creation of works on a daily basis. As the shortage of human resources in the animation industry is seen as an issue, we hope that this initiative will contribute to the realization of a flexible animation production process through appropriate support for creators using the latest technology.”

It also looks like Makihara also wanted to push boundaries in animation by using AI technology as part of the production process. The Netflix release quoted him as saying, “By combining tools and hand-drawn techniques, we can create something unique to humans … I think that the core of the story is ‘drawing a human being.’ I think that it will be possible to secure and return to its roots, which will eventually strengthen the strengths of Japanese animation and expand its possibilities.”

Labor shortage or not, AI assistance may possibly speed up production times and lower production costs, allowing the creation of more animated content than ever before. But will people be happy about it? That remains to be seen.

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